Where are all the socialists?

Recently I was attending a gathering of some friends and colleagues, and the conversation turned to politics and ideological perspectives. Someone asked me what my politics were, and without a second thought I answered that I was a socialist. This, I have to admit, caused a certain amount of mirth amongst those present. They claimed not to be able to identify much socialism in what they thought were my known views.

I suppose some of these things depend on your definition. If you look at articles on socialism on sites such as Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica, you will tend to see it defined as an ideological perspective (derived mainly from Marx) that places its main emphasis on the public ownership of the means of production and distribution, and others may also focus on the redistribution of wealth. In fact, socialism has splintered into a bewildering array of groups, some of them with fairly exotic views. But it is true that most people will still regard state direction and control of economic activity as they key aspect.

This seems to me to place method high above outcome – and this is perhaps one of the disheartening features of socialism. In the articles of faith of many socialists, it is not permitted to believe that socially desirable conditions could be created by any means other than public ownership and state direction. This is often due to a very strong commitment to socialist theory which is capable of rejecting facts if they do not match ideology-driven expectations. It is this, for example (and with apologies to my many friends who hold this view), that drives apparently intelligent people to cite socialist principles as a reason for redirecting funds to the wealthier classes (in the context of university fees), simply because that is what received theory seems to require.

But it seems to me that the real ideal of socialism is much more interesting: it is about taking action to create, maintain and sustain a society that is equitable and inclusive and seeks to eradicate poverty and disadvantage. In the economic, technological and cultural conditions of the 21st century it is unlikely that we can easily do all these things by adhering closely to 19th century articles of faith. The challenges are now different, and require different methodologies to tackle them.

I have always, as far back as I can remember, described myself as a socialist, and I propose to continue doing so. But I think that if we are to have a powerful sense of what socialism is and can be and if we are to make that politically influential, we have to move away from the old statist concepts that defined socialism 100 years ago or more. If we cannot do that, it is doubtful that too many people outside that die-hard circle of true believers will be interested in it any longer.

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2 Comments on “Where are all the socialists?”

  1. Most socialists I know have long since moved on from statist conceptions of socialism.

    If you haven’t already come across it, you might be interested in “participatory economics” (shortened to parecon), it’s an idea for an alternative economic system to capitalism which is broadly inspired by socialism and anarchism.


  2. Ultan Says:

    Firstly, when I read the title of this posting, I thought “Oh God, I bet there’ll be a reference to Bertie’s claims to be a socialist”, but thankfully you’ve avoided that one (‘though I think he wasn’t all that unreasonable).

    Secondly, I would agree we need to move past ideological positions as justification for decisions (though doing so in this country does not have a great track record). I don’t think socialism and equity can be defined in terms of how we distribute wealth after the fact, as it so often is defined, but we need to think in terms of *how that wealth is created in the first place, and who is involved. For example, I am sure the fuelling of the labour-intensive construction industry in this country since 2001 raised quite a few boats, but what a price we’ve paid. Investment in a more technology-driven, high-productivity knowledge economy might have been a better, if tougher road to take – but the short-term results wouldn’t be there.

    It may be that we need to adopt some middle ground on the road to getting where we want to be. For example, rather than a “no-fees” or “fees”, perhaps the question is if you feel there is a third-level education out there that is worth it – in terms of personal gain later in life or the delivery on some wider altruistic motive of returns to the community, then would you consider contributing some money as well as your time for it. And why?



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